U.S. Universities Work to Close the Skills Gap

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Over the past five years there has been one glaring problem plaguing the U.S. labor market: Lots of jobs, not enough qualified people to fill them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there are 4.7 million job openings—the most in over 10 years—and about 9.7 million people currently looking for work. So what’s the problem?

As reported by policymakers, employers, and studies from consulting firms like Deloitte, it’s that today’s workers simply do not have the necessary skills needed for the jobs that exist today. This “skills gap” is making it increasingly difficult for employers, especially in manufacturing, to find qualified job applicants. In fact a recent survey from ManpowerGroup, a staffing firm, shows that 36 percent of global employers are having trouble finding candidates with the right skills, and a PwC survey found that about a third of private companies identify this skills gap as a barrier to growth.

The manufacturing industry has had an especially difficult time finding workers. Over the past year there have been consistently more jobs available in that industry than workers hired. To make matters worse, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of the existing manufacturing workforce will likely retire in the next 10 years, creating an even larger shortage of workers.

“Losing skilled, experienced people to retirement is a major concern,” says Kathleen Randolph, president and CEO of Northeast Indiana Works, a workforce development company. “It is imperative that we up-skill workers already in the workforce and we make sure training and education pathways for in-demand jobs are available for those who have yet to enter the workforce.”

Across the U.S., universities are starting to partner with local businesses in order to combat the skills gap through programs that will empower students through hands-on, practical learning that addresses the needs of today’s workforce. Not only do the individuals taking the courses benefit from acquiring the necessary skillsets, but the companies involved obtain a pool of workers trained in the newest technology.

In Indiana, manufacturing makes up more than one-quarter of the state’s total output, and 16 percent of the total workforce. And according to reports, about 20.5 percent of Indiana’s total workforce is aged 55 or older, meaning that the industries could soon lose skilled employees, and may not have the younger talent to replace them.

To help combat this, Purdue University, led by professors from the College of Technology, opened the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Center in 2002. The center fuses the talents and resources of the College of Technology, Engineering, Science, and Krannert School of Management into a single entity in order to to promote the advancement and implementation of PLM technologies and processes. It not only helps companies adopt best practices, but also gives students practical and real-world experience with product lifecycle management and connects them with industry partners, like Boeing and GE.

In addition, Purdue recently formed IN-MaC, Indiana’s next generation manufacturing competitiveness center. IN-MaC’s main focus will be workforce education to support and train individuals currently in the workforce, as well as the next generation of manufacturing employees. Purdue University has also teamed up with PTC to provide best-practice training to both students and industry through the Authorized Training Partner Program.

Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College is another institution partnering with companies to create a program to help prepare students for the workforce. Working with Industrial Electric, an electrical contracting company, Ivy Tech has created a program—which will start in the fall—that consists of a dual system of education and training. It will combine three days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools, and two days of paid, on-the-job apprenticeships, culminating in full-time jobs once a student graduates. These courses will be available to traditional-age students or individuals who want to change jobs or find new careers.

Educating current and future workers in this way is expected to close the skills gap, at least part way, but some experts believe it won’t be enough.

According to Peter Cappelli, who directs the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, employers need to take a more active role in encouraging their workers to improve their skills and adjust their expectations of the incoming workforce.

“Schools, at least as traditionally envisioned, are not suited to organize work experience, the key attribute that employers want,” Cappelli writes. “Nor are they necessarily good at teaching work-based skills. Those skills are easiest and cheapest to learn in the workplace through apprentice-like arrangements that one finds not only in skilled trades, but also in fields like accounting and medicine.”

“Unlike in the classroom,” he continues, “problems to practice on do not have to be created in the workplace. They exist already, and solving them creates value for others. Observation and practice is also easiest to do where the productive work is being done, and employment creates incentives and motivation that typical classrooms cannot duplicate.”

Michelle Millier contributed to this article.

Photo courtesy of Purdue University

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One thought on “U.S. Universities Work to Close the Skills Gap”

  1. Zig says:

    This is wrong… there are plenty of my science and engineering colleagues, people with 10,15 or 20 years of directly relevant experience for the jobs they apply to, who are out of work and actively looking with no results. Companies don’t hire them because they don’t want to pay what these people are worth… instead they wait (sometimes 6 months or more) for a just-out-of-college worker who has experience in exactly that one specialty and try to pay them the minimum they can get away with. In the meantime, they get their current workers to do extra to cover the gap. It doesn’t make any sense… you pass on someone with experience to put someone with little experience in an important position where they are going to make the kinds of mistakes that inexperienced workers do (and that sometimes cost real money) and you demoralize your overworked workforce… but I have seen it too many times. The suits and the bean counters are responsible for this situation yet never seem to pay a price for its short-sightedness. I suppose that’s because their bosses are more suits.

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